Sleeping in the Forest Poem by Mary Oliver Summary, Notes and Line by Line Explanation in English for Students


Sleeping in the Forest is a poem written by the famous American poet Mary Oliver. The poem was first published in a 16-page chapbook in the Ohio Review by the name Sleeping in the Forest (Ohio University) in the year 1978. The chapbook consisted of twelve poems, among which Sleeping in the Forest was one. Like other Mary Oliver poems, this poem also puts the limelight on the natural landscape. The poem is beautiful and contemplative and captures the transformative and rejuvenating power of nature. The poem portrays nature as a place of comfort and shelter for all natural creatures. 

About the Author 

Born on September 10, 1935, in Ohio, Mary Jane Oliver is an American poet known for her works inspired by nature. From a young age, Oliver had developed a deep connection with the outdoor and it later materialised into her poetry where the beauty of nature is celebrates, along with an exploration of the spiritual and the philosophical dimensions of life. Her first collection of poems, No Voyage and Other Poems, was published in 1963. Over the years, she gained recognition for her unique voice and ability to capture the essence of the natural world in her verses. Her poetry often reflects her love for animals, plants, and the changing seasons. One of her most acclaimed works is New and Selected Poems (1992), which won the National Book Award for Poetry. She received numerous other awards and honors throughout her career, including the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1984 for her collection American Primitive.


The poem consists of eighteen lines, which are composed with enjambment. Composed in the first-person voice, the poem is lyrical and romantic. The lack of a particular form might be an attempt to defy oder and to portray the natural world as it exists. 

Lines 1- 5

I thought the earth

remembered me, she

took me back so tenderly, arranging

her dark skirts, her pockets

full of lichens and seeds. I slept


The poem starts with the speaker making a claim. The speaker thinks that the Earth remembers them since the ground accepts the speaker’s presence very tenderly. The Earth is said to arrange her “dark skirts” and her pockets of lichens and seeds, to accommodate the speaker. 


Here, the Earth is portrayed as a nurturing and caring mother towards the speaker. The poet has personified the earth as someone who adjusts her skirts, in order to emphasise the image of a motherly presence. The further description of the mother-Eath’s pockets being full lichens and seeds, also signifies how just like a mother, nature nurtures all natural creatures and gifts them difference resources- such as seeds, and fruits. 

Lines 6-11

as never before, a stone

on the riverbed, nothing

between me and the white fire of the stars

but my thoughts, and they floated

light as moths among the branches

of the perfect trees. All night


The speaker further goes on to tell us that they are so comforted amongst the natural space, that they sleep like never before, like a baby. The speaker next gives us an image of a static stone lying on a riverbead. The speaker remarks that there is nothing present between them and the “white fires” of the stars, except for their thoughts. And these thoughts, the speaker describes, float in the air as light as moths amongst the brachest of the trees. 


Apart from providing everyone with resources, nature is also a space of rejuvination and comfort. In this space, the speaker feels tranquil, without any worries. The speaker refers to her thoughts being as light as the moths that float amongst the branches of the tree. This shows us how when one is in nature, they do not feel any burdens or worries, and are worryless. The speaker calls the trees “perfect” in order to further emphasise on the profound calming space nature provides. Thus, this description is very lyrical and thus, resembles the poems written during the Romantic era. 

Lines 12-18

I heard the small kingdoms breathing

around me, the insects, and the birds

who do their work in the darkness. All night

I rose and fell, as if in water, grappling

with a luminous doom. By morning

I had vanished at least a dozen times

into something better.


Here, the speaker has portrayed the natural landscape in the nighttime. As the speaker sleeps amongst the trees on the soft ground, they are able to ear all the “kindom” of natural creatures that live and breath around them. The speaker talks about the insects and the birds, who despite the nighttime, do their work. All night, as the speaker breathes in and out, it is as if they are in water, and are rising and falling with its grappling momentum and a “luminous doom”. As the speaker encounters the morning time, they have “vanished” a dozen times and transformed into a whole together new, and better person. 


The poem comes across as ecocentric as the speaker talks about the various kingdoms of natural creatures that inhabit nature. Despite it being night, these creatures continue to work to make their food and live in nature. It is important to note how the poet uses ominous words like ‘dark’ and ‘doom’ several times forming a contrast to everything else that she says. Lastly, we are told that being amidst nature is a transformative experience for the speaker as they “vanish” and are re-made multiple times into someone better.